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After two years at St. Norbert, Ben Gjerde heads off to law school. His classmate Alexis Renikow has graduation in her sights this December. Above, Gjerde receives his diploma from President Brian Bruess ’90.

Students With a Plan Graduate Years Ahead

Ben Gjerde ’18 was just 20 years old when he walked across the stage to accept his bachelor’s degree during the May 2018 graduation ceremony.

The ambitious student now heads off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s law school as one of the youngest in his class. Careful planning and help from St. Norbert College administrators and professors enabled Gjerde to complete his undergrad degree in just two years.

His classmate Alexis Renikow ’18 will finish her undergraduate studies in December, just 2.5 years after enrolling at St. Norbert College. Renikow also credits the college for helping her graduate so quickly. Both students took plenty of college-level classes while in high school, but neither had a grand plan to graduate early. 

Gjerde, who graduated from St. Norbert with a history degree, has always been interested in Europe and history, so he took many college-level courses in that area while in high school, plus some general AP classes and college-level Latin, he says. He estimates he had already earned 62 college credits by the time he attended his first class as a St. Norbert student.

Gjerde has two older siblings, so his mother knew from experience which high school courses he should take to jumpstart his college career. The Pulaski (Wis.) High School graduate took several Advanced Placement classes and participated in the Wisconsin Youth Options program, which allows high school juniors and seniors to attend a state college where they take one or more courses for both high school and college credit.

“I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do, and I started with an undecided major,” Gjerde says. “I hadn’t really thought of graduating early until freshman year. Before that, I thought I might graduate in three years, but then my classes all started coming together.”

He was nervous about taking college-level classes while in high school, Gjerde acknowledges. “But then I took a 300-level class in high school, and that helped my confidence a lot. I felt I could handle college after that.”

Although finishing so many courses while in high school meant a lot less time on campus for Gjerde, he says working as a research fellow at the school’s Center for Norbertine Studies helped him feel fully part of the college.

“I did fellowship research in France, too,” he says. “Doing all that made me feel more confident. I really liked my second year of undergrad. I never had a class I didn’t like.”

He recognizes his fast track to graduation means he missed out on clubs and other activities.

“I know my résumé was much smaller than others who are in college for four years,” Gjerde says. “I think that could potentially hurt people applying for grad school or medical college. I tried to make sure the law schools I applied to knew I had graduated in two years and that was why I didn’t have as many activities.”

For others hoping to graduate in record time, Gjerde recommends choosing high school courses to fit a number of college requirements. “A lot of it depends on the courses you take,” he says. “History offered me a lot of flexibility.” Students also needn’t be afraid to reach out to professors if they need to enroll in a specific class to fit a tight timeline, he suggests. 

Taking care of business
Renikow, too, didn’t initially plan to graduate in fewer than three years. She attended Wausaukee (Wis.) High School, which partners with Northeast Wisconsin Technical College to make college courses available to students. She entered college just two classes shy of earning her psychology minor. She also completed several courses that counted toward her business administration major. What’s more, a number of her courses allowed Renikow to “double dip,” or fulfill several course requirements with a single class. She also took summer classes through the University of Wisconsin which were preapproved to meet St. Norbert requirements.

Now that graduation is in sight, Renikow says she’s excited for her future. 

In a few days, she heads to Atlanta for a summer internship with Georgia-Pacific, which could lead to full-time employment when she graduates. She interned at the paper company’s Green Bay offices in spring, and she says she’s eager to see what her future with the company holds. “I think I am already thinking beyond graduation,” the 20-year-old says. “I know what I want to do, and I am sort of eager to get started.”

Renikow says she disagrees with those who say she’s not getting a full college experience due to her speedy ride to graduation.

“I think I got it all,” she says. “I was part of the Gap Experience program, so I got the same experience as those who study abroad.”

Still, Renikow acknowledges it can be odd to hang out with friends.

“I am like ‘I have to figure out what to do after graduation,’ and they still have time in college,” she says. “But I made a few friends who are graduating in three years, so we can talk about some of the same things.”

Friends and family are proud she’s graduating in a fraction of the usual college stint, but she doubts they are surprised.

“I was valedictorian of my high school class,” she says. “I’ve always worked very hard, this is sort of a continuation of that.”

Students interested in graduating early should choose a major while in high school, if possible, she recommends. Renikow also took summer and J-term courses and the maximum number of classes each semester at St. Norbert to make the most of her time on campus.

“Still, I didn’t really know,” she says. “When I was signing up for classes for my sophomore year, I asked an advisor if I might be able to graduate early because I sort of thought I could do it in three years. And when I was working with my business admin advisor, we figured out my second semester of my sophomore year, and my advisor says, ‘You know, I think you can do this in two and a half years.’ ”

Renikow praises the college for helping her cross the finish line so soon.

“I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to do this at any other college,” she says. “I’m definitely grateful.”

June 5, 2018